Saudi Arabia’s

 Foremost Research Center

            The rapid socioeconomic transformation of Saudi Arabia over the past decades has been brought about by careful planning and implementation of short- and long-term development programs by various arms of the government that although independent of each other work in cohesion to ensure maximum returns on the vast sums of money invested in the Kingdom to meet the needs of the nation. Each of these different agencies employs a large number of specialists and, thereby, is the premier source of technical know-how in its field.

KACST scientists analyze images taken by satellites that show, for example, center pivot irrigation systems in farms, for agricultural, industrial, urban and other uses.

            As Saudi Arabia’s five-year development plans, introduced in 1970, began to realize the objectives of growth and progress, the Kingdom felt the need to establish an independent think tank that would be able to provide insight, advice and expertise that would complement the work of various government agencies.

            Set up in 1980, the King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) has grown into an institution capable of making substantial contributions in whatever field the government feels a need for comprehensive scientific and technological studies and advice.

            Reporting to the office of the Prime Minister, the center’s principal responsibilities include proposing a national policy for science and technology and formulating a strategy for its implementation; carrying out applied research programs; and coordinating with government agencies, scientific institutions and research centers in Saudi Arabia to enhance research, facilitate the dissemination of information, exchange expertise and prevent duplication of such efforts. KACST also conducts joint research programs with international scientific institutions, and offers scholarships to develop the manpower skills necessary to plan and carry out scientific research programs and award grants to individuals and organizations to conduct applied research.

            Another important duty of the center is to help the private sector conduct applied research to promote agricultural and industrial progress and development.

The center conducts cutting-edge research and development in computer sciences.

            In the two decades since its establishment, the organization has evolved into an important research facility that has made major contributions in such fields as engineering, medicine, agriculture, chemistry, water resources, highway safety and environmental conservation.

            In addition to its administrative and financial departments, KACST has 15 institutions, each with responsibility in a specific scientific field. Each has made major accomplishments.

            Most recently, KACST played a pivotal role in leading national efforts to ensure Y2K compliance of the Kingdom’s computer networks in all key sectors of the economy. A national Y2K command center was based at KACST headquarters, where 24 organizations were represented. The command center was headed by Dr. Mohammad Al-Suwaiyel, KACST vice president for Research Institutes and chairman of the Y2K committee. Thanks to its efforts and those of the participating organizations, Saudi Arabia achieved 100 percent Y2K compliance.

            KACST has also been playing a significant role in promoting the use of the Internet in the Kingdom. To this end, it has been coordinating closely with Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in matters relating to data security and protection. The center has also been encouraging the companies that had embarked on the research and development program for developing software that controls access to the Internet. One such firm was the International Systems Engineering Co. Ltd. (ISE), a Saudi Economic Offset Program company. With the cooperation of KACST, the company designed a new product, SecuShield, based on a comprehensive data protection system. Besides keeping personal and other sensitive data confidential, SecuShield also maintains the integrity of the data and ensures that the system is not accessible to unauthorized persons.

            The use of the Internet in Saudi Arabia has grown in popularity to such an extent since its launch in 1998 that accessing the Internet became problematic for a while. The KACST moved in to work closely with the Saudi Telecommunications Company (STC) to increase the number of ports for the Internet from the current level of 15,000 to 35,000 as part of its plan to expedite the process of eliminating delays in accessing the Internet. The plan calls for increasing the capacity within the national and international networks, besides streamlining the functioning of server machines. The bandwidth capacity has also been enhanced by an additional eight megabytes to a total of 30 megabytes per second to ease traffic congestion, making it easier to log on to the Internet.

            KACST is also actively engaged in conducting research on data security and Arabic computerized processing. The Electronics and Computers Institute at KACST has developed a software program called Al-Murrib, which allows on-time execution and line design by programmers. It has also developed an automated recognition project, which helps the mailing system sort out letters automatically, thus saving time and effort. Another breakthrough achieved by the institute is software designed for the application of multimedia computer sciences to educational programs produced in the Arabic language.

            The Space Research Institute of KACST has produced the Kingdom’s first digital map, which can either be run on a PC or transferred to other software. It has also produced an integrated system based on remote sensing and GPS (Global Positioning System). The institute has also used remote sensing technology for geological applications. This technology uses multispectral coverage that ranges from visible to thermal infrared, as well as radar images, to provide valuable data on structural geology for locating mineral deposits.

            KACST’s research scientists also developed a set of guidelines for wheat farmers that enables them to make optimum use of irrigation water for wheat crops. The research findings have been deemed to be significant in the context of the Kingdom’s agriculture policy to conserve ground water and rationalize its use for boosting farm productivity. The researchers analyzed weather data from eight different regions of the Kingdom from 1970 through 1994. Their idea was to calculate the long-term water balance from the standpoints of its impact on crop production and crop water requirements in these areas. They also compared the respective yields from center pivot and basin irrigation systems during two wheat growing seasons. The findings revealed that farmers using center pivot irrigation obtained the highest possible yield along with higher water-use efficiency. The research showed that use of center pivot irrigation systems instead of sub-soil basin irrigation systems could save 400 cubic meters of water per hectare per season. “For about 100,000 irrigated hectares of wheat crop grown in the Eastern Province, the total amount of water saved is equivalent to 1.4 billion cubic feet per season,” said Dr. Al-Suwaiyel, adding that the amount of water preserved may be directed toward planting other winter crops or be retained in groundwater aquifers for future use.

            KACST researchers also developed a micro computer-based soil water sensing technology that promotes water conservation by 24 percent and boosts the average wheat yield by 10 percent. The results were documented following field experiments undertaken for three successive growing seasons on wheat farms at the Hail Agriculture Development Company.

            Another of KACST’s specialized research institutions is the Atomic Energy Research Institute, which is responsible for exploiting and developing nuclear application and technologies for peaceful purposes. The main function of this unit is to control the radioactive waste disposal in all installations that use radioactive material. At present, the unit is involved in the preparation of national regulation for radioactive waste disposal in the Kingdom.

            In 1990, KACST established the Institute of Natural Resources and Environmental Research. One of the institute’s main functions is to supervise the Fish Culture Project, which develops technologies and facilities to encourage the establishment and expansion of fish farms by the private sector. The center operates two research stations in Qassim and Dirab, which produce hundreds of thousands of tilapia, carp and catfish fingerlings and provide them to private fish farms. It also conducts experiments to make growing prawns in fish farms more profitable.


Lunar observatories (right) and ground stations (left) are among the many facilities KACST runs as part of its data processing and remote sensing programs.

                   The Astronomy and Geophysics Research Institute supervises lunar and national observatories as well as the Saudi Arabian Laser Ranging Observatory and National Seismic Network. The institute carries out astronomical research that can be useful to Saudi Arabia.

            The Center for Remote Sensing was formed in 1986 to receive, analyze and conduct research using information collected by satellites in the Earth’s orbit. To do so, the institute established receiving stations capable of collecting and recording data from various satellites. This information is then processed and analyzed, and is used by the center’s photo processing laboratory to produce prints, geocoded images and computer tapes. As an example, the images produced by the center helped Saudi Arabia deal effectively with the massive oil spill in its coastal ecosystems at the conclusion of the Arabian Gulf War in 1991.

            In addition to carrying out research studies at its various institutes and facilities, the KACST also funds research projects by universities and individual scientists. As an example, one such project called for the use of remote sensing technology to study the environmental impact of sewage water in Jeddah and to select an alternative site to receive effluent. Another research grant approved by KACST was for a study on the incidence of high blood pressure in the Eastern Province. The aim was to evaluate the dimension of the problem, determine its causes and formulate a set of recommendations for a future line of action.

            An innovative research project undertaken by Saudi scientists under a grant from the KACST related to the development of a speech synthesizer. A Saudi linguist developed a prototype that can communicate in 11 languages, while using Arabic as the base language. According to Dr. Abdullah Al-Humaidan, dean of the College of Languages and Translation at King Saud University, the computer, which is attached to a fax machine, responds to questions in 11 languages.

            KACST is also collaborating with the college to promote Arabization of scientific and medical terminology. KACST has funded a project for creating a database of scientific terminology. Known as Basm, it comprises a vocabulary of 200,000 Arabic scientific words translated from English, French and German.


An array of photovoltaic cells is used for alternative energy research.

            KACST also conducts joint research projects with international organizations and scientific institutions. Its institute of Natural Resources and Environmental Research, for example, embarked on a joint research project with the Petroleum Energy Center of Japan on wastewater reclamation for irrigation purposes in the Kingdom. The objective is to use wastewater for irrigation of parks and farms. It involves setting up a pilot project at Al-Khafji near the Saudi-Kuwaiti border. The project, due to be completed by 2001, will rely on the GIS (Geographic Information System) for creating a database on the vegetation cover at Al-Khafji and the rest of the country. The data, to be procured from Nova, Spot and IRS satellites, will be used for the creation of computer models.

            One of the aims of the project, according institute director, Dr. Abdul Khader Al-Sari, is to estimate the Kingdom’s vegetation cover, indicating the types of crop grown in different regions. Field trips will be conducted to examine the nature of the soil, hydrology and weather conditions prevailing in the agricultural areas. “This will help us to create a national database of vegetation in the Kingdom,” he observes.

The center operates an extensive library, which is open to academics.

            Furthermore, KACST is collaborating with five other countries in its international cooperation program. They include the United States  (solar energy, astronomy and remote sensing); Australia (astronomy and laser technology); Germany (solar energy and information technology); Canada (remote sensing); and Taiwan (fresh water fish culture). This is in addition to the ongoing cooperation with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, and Arabian and Islamic nations in the field of information and exchange of experience.

            Realizing the importance of protecting intellectual property, the KACST established the General Directorate of Patents to review applications, and, over the years, the office has approved thousands of patents.

            KACST is also involved in promoting public awareness and interest in science and technology. It does so by publishing a quarterly journal, as well as books, brochures and posters; producing audiovisual presentations that are shown in schools; and conducting lectures and seminars.

            With Saudi Arabia poised for greater development in the 21st century, the need for a research facility such as KACST is more evident than ever. The elevation of its president, Dr. Saleh Al-Athel, to the rank of a minister proves beyond doubt that the Kingdom’s leadership recognizes the importance of this institution for promoting research and facilitating the continued development of Saudi Arabia.


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